Publications written in Black Country dialect.

Back at Home with Dialect

I’ve had dialect on the mind lately. As a language learner, that’s nothing new; learning how my target languages vary across geography has always been a fun (and useful) distraction.

But this time, it’s a case of back to my roots as I research my local Black Country dialect for a university project. It’s a winding path that led me to the Black Country Living Museum this weekend, the sights and sounds of my home region at every turn. The caws, shaws and ays tripped off the tongues of the fantastic volunteers, all well-versed in Dudley spake. I lost count of the times I was wistfully reminded of how my grandparents talked.

A chain-making forge at the Black Country Living Museum.

A chain-making forge at the Black Country Living Museum.

It‘a a timely reminder that we don’t always have to look to the language books for linguistic diversity. Regional dialect is just not always feted for that. In fact, pundits often paint it as something far less worthy of our attention.

At least, that was my experience growing up as a Black Country kid.

Doing Down Dialect

My family have always spoken the local dialect. Happily, naturally, barely even aware of it. At school, though, I learned that a different standard was set. Broad Black Country was a tongue subtly shunned. Although dialect shame was no longer as explicit by that time (some shocking attitudes prevailed just a decade or two earlier), it was clear that “doing well” meant “speaking proper”.

Later, at uni, I worked hard (though likely, without even too much conscious awareness) to flatten out the giveaway vowels in my own accent, which were so eagerly pointed out as entertaining during Freshers’ Week. No, not all dialects are created equal in the eyes of the hoi polloi. But those clumsy attempts to escape it also stir up the mirth. Heck, they even dissect Liam Payne for it of late.

As a result, I saw my family dialect as something to resign myself to. I never really gave it the time of day. It was background noise, something to be borne, something I just ended up with. What a shame that is. But what a common story it is, too.

(Re-)Learning to Love It

Learning that dialect – yes, even my own – fascinates and occupies linguists, had a profound effect on me. Only recently have I come to regard mine at something special, something worthy of study in its own right, just like one of my foreign languages. I’m approaching Black Country English with the kinds of mental tools that I’d approach a foreign language with. And I’ve realised how richly unique it is.

If social pressure ever prompted you to lock your own dialect in a dusty mental cupboard, try revisiting it with fresh eyes. Check out local societies working to document and promote it. Leaf through a dialectology primer to find out where yours fits in, and why it’s special. Reappraising mine as something with an important linguistic story to tell is a response to that language-obsessed youngster, seeking a skill to make himself special by looking further and further away.

You already have something unique. Treasure it.

A bag of books from the gift shop at the Black Country Living Museum.

A bag of books. What better souvenir?

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